To close the student attainment gap universities must lead by example

The sector needs to share its successes and its failures to make progress, says Janet Beer 

May 12, 2019

The first recommendation from Universities UK’s new report on closing the black, Asian and minority ethnic student attainment gap is clear: universities need to both lead by example and provide strong direction.  

Ninety-six university leaders have already pledged to use the framework devised by UUK and the National Union of Students to close this gap. The sector’s swift reaction gives me great confidence. 

There is, of course, a long way to go before we eliminate the difference between the proportion of first-class and 2:1 degrees awarded to white students and those awarded to BAME students, which currently stands at 13 per cent, but the public acknowledgement of the issue and the desire to do more is vitally important.

UUK and the NUS have worked relentlessly to ensure the widest possible input into this work. Through a series of regional roundtables with students, academics, university staff and vice-chancellors we have identified five steps universities can take to improve BAME student outcomes. 

While the multiple causes of the disparity in achievement are complex, identifying some of the solutions is less so. 

Encouraging, listening and acting on the views of students must be integral to building our understanding of their experiences at university and how they can be improved. The opinions of students have – in very positive ways – been the focus of much of the media attention on the report and a welcome part of the broadcast coverage. After all, this is about their futures so their voices need to be front and centre.

We also need to remember, however, that universities are already taking action and their different approaches to responding to the needs of their students can be shared and good practice built upon. 

Working in isolation often means that progress is slower. So to help disseminate new knowledge, UUK has created a case study library for universities to share the challenges, successes and impact of what they are already doing, for others to learn from. 

More evidence is key and we want the sector to help increase this set of case studies. The range of initiatives demonstrates that many universities are already making significant investments in change, such as Queen Mary University of London’s introduction of new modules to discuss race and disability in relation to drama, while joining up the committees on teaching and learning with those focusing on equality and diversity. 

Another example is the University of the West of England, which has created a BAME project officer post in health and applied sciences directly focusing on the attainment gap within the faculty. Meanwhile, at Goldsmiths, University of London, a “Liberate our Library” working group has diversified the resources available to students in their library.

Every university is different and therefore different approaches will be needed, including an increased focus on unconscious bias training and inclusive teaching practices, diversifying the curriculum, and ensuring that students have visible BAME role models among university staff. 

Currently, 10 per cent of professors are BAME and just 0.6 per cent are black. Addressing some of these challenges will take time and considerable effort, but we can all learn a lot from each other and the collection of case studies will help us to do this. 

The more transparent we are, the faster we will progress. We talk a lot about what works, but we also need to talk more about what doesn’t.

Our universities are racially and culturally diverse and they must also be places where students are inspired and encouraged to realise their potential. 

I am proud of the sector for making a formal commitment to close the BAME attainment gap and for sharing the steps that they have already taken, including both the successes and the challenges they have come across. 

I look forward to following the progress of our work and call on all university leaders and senior managers to learn from the work of their colleagues. It is only when we succeed in closing the attainment gap that all of our students and staff can have real confidence that the higher education environment is one in which they can flourish.

Dame Janet Beer is president of UUK and vice-chancellor at the University of Liverpool.

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